Even though I'm a white male soaked in privilege I have a personal history with busing, like presidential candidate Kamala Harris who brought up her busing experience in the Democratic debate in Miami, Florida, on June 28, 2019. In the Long Beach Unified School District, where I grew up in California, they decided to invite kids, like me, to be bused into predominantly black schools in poorer neighborhoods in order to participate in magnet programs. I took advantage of two of those options; in 5th and 6th grades I went to SHARP at Signal Hill Elementary and all through high school I attended PACE at Long Beach Polytechnic High.
Each magnet program made the school populations more diverse, but they took very different approaches to the fact of that diversity. At the elementary school the magnet program classrooms were separate from the rest of the school and our schedules barely overlapped so we had little contact with the mostly black regular program kids. Even though we helped to diversify the demographic numbers of the school-as-a-whole, the school was not really integrated. On the other hand, the high school program took a proactive attitude towards making integration a positive aspect of its culture with good results. Us kids in the program had many opportunities to interact with the kids who were not in it and race was addressed directly. In my experience school integration can be both good and bad, depending on how it is done. It is not enough to take a simple for or against position when it comes to racially integrating schools.
Shortly after Harris's comments brought busing back into the national discourse, an article came out with the headline, "Did Busing Work?" (https://all4ed.org/did-busing-work/). Based on my experience I am skeptical of claims that busing specifically, and desegregation more broadly, are necessary solutions to inequities in our school system. Even though I did benefit from the programs to which I was bused, I'm not one of the people who needed better access to those benefits. More importantly, my argument for rethinking the equity issue derives more from recent insights into the psychology of learning than on the effects of past policies.
Objectively, desegregation did improve educational outcomes for black children in those places and times when it was achieved, according to a study reported in the Hechinger Report (https://hechingerreport.org/two-generations-desegregation/). But was the difference made by desegregation in and of itself (white and black children sitting in the same classroom or school)? The researchers said the mechanism of improvement was more likely the increases in spending that went with the desegregation. I further suspect that no one would be naive enough to think that spending, per se, is the mechanism for improvement, either. Spending is a proxy for putting capable teachers in front of students who can benefit from their teaching capabilities with some minimal level of material support (in the form of books and other relevant resources for the children to learn with/from).
We set public policy using proxies for important things quite often. For instance, the state health department's restaurant inspectors do not culture bacteria from each dish in each restaurant in order to count the number of toxic or disease-producing microorganisms as a means for deciding whether the food is safe to eat or not. They use the proxies of good personal hygiene by workers and their implementation of well-established “best practices” for safe handling of foods to stand in for whether or not the food is actually safe for consumption.
We have been using proxies in the education industry forever. Education is generally considered an ethereal mystery that we can only evaluate through proxies. Test scores, grades and diplomas are proxies for being educated. Desegregation is a proxy for equitable deployment of resources. To be precise, in the absence of a good solid scientific theory that would more clearly indicate where to focus our attention regarding how to produce the kind of learning we need to produce, we use proxies. It is a perfectly rational thing to do.
Consider further that the particular proxies that have historically been chosen do not reliably indicate what they are assumed to indicate. What if food inspectors were more concerned about the smells in the restaurant than the germs? This is a plausible choice of proxy for an inspectorate that believed in the miasma theory of disease. The miasma theory says that bad smells cause disease, not germs. A miasma-believing inspector might object to the use of harsh smelling chemical disinfectants and prefer the abundant use of perfume to create more pleasing smells instead. (Before the institutional adoption of germ theory the strategic use of perfume was mistakenly considered an acceptable medical practice for combatting the spread of contagious diseases.) Proxy measures are always problematic when they do not do the job we expect them to do.
What would it mean if desegregation, as a proxy for equitable deployment of teachers and resources, was not valid? What if test scores, grades and diplomas are not valid as proxies for getting an education? Finally, what if we know there are more scientifically valid ways to measure educationally relevant features of classroom and school situations that would be better proxies for indicating our success along the path to attaining an educated citizenry? In short, what if we're getting it all wrong?
I have to clarify three things before continuing. Fair warning: the three things are necessarily a little more technical and/or philosophical in nature, so be patient for four paragraphs. First, I take it as a given that the goal of every individual parent is to ensure that their child is educated and that, in a face-to-face confrontation between two parents of different races, no sane parent would ever openly endorse a desire to sacrifice one child's education for another. In a one-on-one confrontation with someone who shares their identity as a parent, even a die-hard racist would be reluctant to share those stereotyping thoughts that demean that other person and their child. This is a version of the moral dilemma presented in the classic film Sophie's Choice (1982). Spoiler alert: Meryl Streep plays a Jewish mother who survived the Nazi concentration camps and was forced by a guard to choose which one of her children should be killed in order for her and the other child to survive. Every individual parent recognizes, if only intuitively, that being put in the position wherein they are asked to sacrifice their own child's education for the education of someone else's child would put them in a thoroughly unacceptable moral bind. No mentally competent person (parent or not) would wish that kind of moral catch-22 on anyone.
Our education system currently makes you decide this kind of moral issue without telling you that the decision you made will have that effect. You don't even realize you are being made to choose some children for sacrifice because the children to be sacrificed are usually not your own. And those parents who are enduring (or even actively working against) the sacrifice of their own child's education may be deflected from the real problems because they are paying attention to invalid proxies that do not accurately indicate whether an education is being effectively offered/attained or not. My point, for now, is that we can expect pervasive good intentions on the part of all citizens when they properly understand the nature of the situation as one in which morally bankrupt sacrifices have been forced upon us because we did not understand how those sacrifices were actually happening. We shall proceed on the assumption that everyone has good intentions, no matter how unwittingly we might be undermining them or how unskillfully we may be pursuing them with our current pattern of political choices. To put this in another way, we are acknowledging that there are system-wide effects that are having unintended negative consequences requiring system-level solutions, despite the fact that everyone is doing their best.
Second, we are all in this together: the fundamental promise of membership in society is that we will collectively provide for the education of all of our fellow citizens. United we stand, divided we fall, and the only true unifier is education and the very best divider is ignorance. “A rising tide will lift all boats” would be a sound idea if that tide is providing universal opportunities to become educated. We are assuming that an “educated” person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations that are appropriate to their situation without necessarily being consciously aware that this is what they are doing. Our school system does a poor job of facilitating children to develop the skills of selecting goals and aspirations, in particular, because it pervasively denies them opportunities to make significant choices about their own activities. Learning in schools is mostly shallow because of this pattern of children being prevented from exercising enough control over their own activities. Making the distinction between deep and shallow learning is crucial to understanding how education is sacrificed for some children and how this pervades our school system without anyone intending it to do so. (My book More Joy More Genius has a more complete discussion of this definition of education and how it relates to the patterns of deep and shallow learning in K-12 schools.)
Third, we now have a scientific insight into learning that must inform how we proceed with education strategies from here on out. In particular, over about five decades of psychological research into motivation and engagement has revealed that we can make one critical and universally applicable claim regarding learning that invalidates many of the proxies that we are currently relying upon to manage the system. The claim: Engagement is a necessary precondition for deeper learning and, conversely, the observed disengagement of a majority of students and teachers causes a pervasive pattern of shallow and fake learning (getting good grades or passing tests without understanding the material). The reason that this claim is “critical” is because it inherently calls into question many of the assumptions about learning that appear to be embedded in the system. The research tradition that this claim draws from, Self-Determination Theory (SDT), has been carefully accumulating empirical evidence for decades to support its explanation of the roles of motivation and engagement in human behavior. The researchers investigating and articulating SDT did not set out to create a theory of learning, but they have inadvertently laid the foundation for a more scientifically respectable one than we have ever had available before. The foundation is a causal chain that clearly sets out necessary (but not sufficient) psychological conditions for deeper learning. In other words, we know that there are some critically important prerequisites to the deeper learning that is necessary to be a productive citizen in our globalized society today. The pervasive disengagement of both teachers and students shows that some of those prerequisites are consistently undermined instead of supported in most schools.
Remember the magnet programs I attended in school? Despite being busy and jumping through the hoops to look good enough to get into an elite college, I was mostly disengaged throughout much of my schooling. I was encouraged to attend those magnet programs because I was bored with the regular classes, an even more extreme form of disengagement than the fake learning I practiced. I’m now a psychologist who specializes in motivation and engagement in schools and the fact is that disengagement is bad for learning. Jumping through the hoops as an expression of fake learning is one of the most severe problems in our school system. It is a severe problem because the system itself does not recognize how it fails to educate many children who look like they are successful. Thank you for your patience, now back to the main subject of this essay.
What role should desegregation play in our school system today? Here's a radical thought that might get me into hot water with some hard-core desegregationists when it gets taken out of context: What if we focus on the educational quality of the environments into which children are placed rather than the demographic characteristics? The trouble I anticipate is that this seems like a restatement of the failed "separate but equal" legal standard that the Brown decision over turned.
The court, in Brown v. Board of Education, took a prudent step toward revising their view of how to ensure that all American citizens, regardless of race, would be supported by their states to become educated. The prior "separate but equal" legal standard established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson was not getting the job done. Jim Crow was the law of the land in the South which meant that black people were too often being treated as if they were slaves (despite slavery being illegal) and otherwise being oppressed in a highly systematic way, according to Douglas Blackmon's book Slavery By Another Name and other analyses of that period in American history. In schools this took the form of separate black schools that were not given adequate funding or other forms of support that would have enabled them to function at the most minimal levels. They were separate and unsupported, thus unable to provide equal educational opportunities.
The "separate but equal" legal standard failed because systemic racism undermined the minimal deployment of teachers and resources to serve minority children. White school boards throughout the country were failing to make equal provisions for teachers and resources in schools that served black communities, though most egregiously in the South. Those black communities were shorted but they were also subjected to the power of those boards without effective political recourse to righting those wrongs, until they eventually got the highest court in the land to decide in their favor and use federal power to force states to put new strategies into play as a result of the Brown decision. Desegregation was, in essence, a strategy for ensuring that teachers and resources were deployed more equitably. There was never an argument that shifting the demographics of schools was actually going to be a direct causal mechanism for improving educational outcomes. The argument was always, I believe, that desegregation was a reasonable proxy measure for the equitable deployment of teachers and other resources.
My new claim, that the pursuit of “equality” is now more plausible, is based on that fact that we now have a whole different context for attempting to achieve the educational outcomes that are at the heart of these issues. When "separate but equal" was first established, there was no federal department of education, the federal government had a very limited record of intervention in education issues, Jim Crow was in full force, and there were no accurate scientific insights into learning that would subsequently withstand prolonged scientific inquiry. To be clear, I am still against the "separate" part when it is enforced by any state or corporate entity, but I believe we are in a different position as a society in terms of making effective efforts to achieve the "equal" part.
We now know that psychological engagement is a fundamental part of the deeper learning that is required to understand and make a productive contribution to our global society. Engagement in a classroom does not depend on the demographics of the students and teachers. It can be negatively affected by a classroom or school culture that creates a hostile environment for some minority of students, but a denigrated minority can be created by putting a focus on just about any demographic detail and even some non-demographic details, e.g. the “dumb kids.” There is a fundamental problem that affects learning when there is any kind of threat to some of the learners in a classroom. Threats are barriers to deeper learning. That kind of threat cannot be ameliorated by adjusting the demographic details of each classroom. It needs to be addressed by adjusting the classroom and school culture (referred to as “climate” in education parlance).
Successful implementation of “equal” educational opportunities was not possible prior to the development of a scientifically respectable understanding of deeper learning. But now that we have the beginning of that understanding we need to use it and revisit the possibility of ensuring a baseline of educational quality through measures of engagement in classrooms and schools. I am not advocating for separation, but I am advocating for a scientifically informed foundation of quality, regardless of existing demographics. Academic measures need to be recognized as proxies for what matters, they do not matter in and of themselves. What matters is children being fully engaged with subjects and activities that are valued by their local communities. If we can measure that engagement, then we are measuring what matters in education. One way of doing that, which has already been scientifically validated, is the Hope Survey. The Hope Survey was the subject of the book Assessing What Really Matters in Schools: Creating Hope for the Future by Ronald Newell and Mark Van Ryzin. The Hope Survey is a school and classroom climate measure. Other measures have been validated within the Self-Determination Theory community, but they have not yet been adapted for the kind of widespread use that will help transform the school system. Another measure that includes engagement and is readily available to many schools, but does not have the same scientific provenance as the Hope Survey, is the Gallup Student Poll.
Desegregation is an unreliable proxy for what really matters in schools. Test scores, grades, and diplomas are also unreliable proxies. Let's take on a new and better kind of proxy for indicating our progress towards educating all children: engagement. Every policy or strategy for the improvement of equity in schools today needs to be evaluated against how well it improves the engagement of teachers and students. When we can clearly see, based on scientifically valid and reliable measures, that the majority of both teachers and students are engaged, we will have effected a major transformation of the school system. That transformation will make better proxies out of test scores, grades, and diplomas (assuming they survive the culling of practices that create disengagement). More importantly, that transformation will be taking us down the path to achieving our true aspiration: the education of all of our fellow citizens.